Obsolete? Customers Beg to Differ

Inc. Magazine recently ran an article titled “Selling Face to Face is Almost Obsolete.” In it, the author cites a study by Dr. James Oldroyd that compares the growth rates of hiring for inside selling positions to that for outside sales roles. Hiring for inside positions, according to the article, is growing at a rate 15 times faster than for outside roles.

There’s no question that the economic downturn caused companies to ration their travel budget and keep their employees, sales or otherwise, closer to home. Multiple studies have also documented, as Dr. Oldroyd does, that even those in outside sales roles are spending less time in front of customers than they traditionally have.

The challenge for sales leaders is that while inside sales roles generally cost much less in both compensation and expense budgets, less time with suppliers is the opposite of what many customers say they want. Indeed, the findings from the voice of the customer interviews our clients conduct with their customers routinely highlight a desire for more interaction, better communication, and a more consistent and visible presence from a key supplier’s personnel.

Of course, buyers don’t want your salespeople to just be wandering their hallways in search of the next deal. What they do want is the specialized knowledge and advice that their suppliers can provide.

Three key findings from a recent project with one of our food industry clients illustrate the point:

  • When asked to identify their preferred source for learning about new solutions and industry trends, the number one response from customers was “Information from suppliers.”
  • Of the various improvement suggestions made by their customer contacts, the single most common request was for more market, industry, and consumer trend information to be shared by our client.
  • Also high on the wish list of improvement areas was establishing more relationships inside the customer organization, particularly with people in research and development and other technical functions.

So, while the temptation to reduce the cost of selling is not likely to ever go away, the complexity of business and the ongoing need for knowledge will keep customers asking for the sort of interaction that only happens when your people can sit across the table from their people.

Business-to-Business Sales, Customer Relationships, Voice of the Customer , , ,

7 Things Customers Want

We all know that the lists of customer wants, needs, complaints and requests can be quite long and varied. Over my twelve years of analyzing customer interview data on behalf of our clients, though, it’s apparent that in B2B relationships there is a fairly consistent cluster of common concerns and compliments expressed by customers. Some of the issues are so fundamental to good relationship management that it’s surprising that they’re on the list at all.

When summarizing for our clients the key messages from their VOC interviews with customers, I sometimes take on the role of a composite customer, using my voice to represent the combined voices of their key contacts.  In no particular order, here are just some of the things that composite customer might say to a product supplier or service provider:

Be present. The suppliers I value most are here consistently. They find relevant ways to be visible and don’t wait for an invitation or urgent request to show up at our offices, labs, or plants.

Please respond when I call.  I know it sounds simple, but waiting for a supplier’s personnel to return my calls or respond to my emails is a surprisingly common occurrence. Not discounting all your efforts to be innovative and offer better quality solutions, you can distinguish yourself by just being the company that responds quicker than others.

When you do call, be helpful.  Make sure that you or your co-workers have the appropriate levels of technical knowledge and willingness to help. If you can’t answer my questions or solve my problem that’s fine, just help me find someone who can.

Don’t keep me wondering or wishing.  When you’re working on a project with me, or trying to solve a problem for me, please keep me informed of the status. Hearing from you proactively gives me greater confidence that you’re working on the solution, rather than leaving me to wonder if you’ve forgotten me and wishing for an update. Even an update of “no progress” is better than no update at all.

Help me learn.  My organization is so lean, and we don’t have the people or the time to stay abreast of all the topics and trends that might affect my business or yours. The supplier that brings me knowledge and helps me apply it to my opportunities and challenges is valued more than those who don’t.

Bring ideas.  Don’t just pitch me on your latest offering or newest product. Use your knowledge of my business and my goals to bring me relevant ideas and recommendations for things that could help us.

Remind me of your value.  Don’t be afraid to remind me of all the good things you’ve done for my business. When you’ve helped us to reduce costs, avoid problems, increase yields or anything else that is important to us, be proactive about documenting those wins and communicating them to us. Somebody is here every other day claiming that they can do it better, faster, or cheaper – so help us both by reinforcing the decision we made to choose your company over theirs.

Business-to-Business Sales, Customer Feedback, Customer Relationships, Voice of the Customer ,

Own the Problem

Customers often say some of their suppliers lack a sense of urgency when things go wrong. They also say that their very best service providers respond quickly, assign appropriate resources, and do not point fingers looking for who is at fault. They convey a sense of responsibility, thoroughness, and accountability. They communicate effectively. In short, they “own the problem”; they provide a sense of comfort to their customers by showing that action is being taken to resolve the issue.

When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, we want our service providers to show us that they care. We want them to help us, be there for us, and care about us. We want them to be as concerned about the problem as we are. We want them to them to take our concern seriously, we want them to feel our pain, and we want them to help us find a solution as soon as possible. Immediately would be good, very soon may be acceptable.

When things go wrong we want our suppliers to empathize with us. We want them to understand the nature and scope of our problem. We want them to say – and more importantly, do – the right things, right now.

When suppliers do not respond immediately, it sends the wrong message. Correctly or incorrectly, delayed responses send a message that the supplier does not think the problem or the customer is important, or that the supplier lacks the proper resources or knowledge, or that for whatever reason, the supplier does not care.

E.G. Insight recently experienced a serious problem over the past two weeks. One of our web-based programs suddenly stopped working. Our clients’ access to the program was severely limited, and our clients were concerned – and rightly so. We contacted our supplier, we contacted our programmers, we contacted our help desk, we contacted everyone we thought touched the problem in some way. We reached out, we waited impatiently, we hoped, and we worried. We communicated to our employees, we communicated to our clients, we continued hoping and worrying for what seemed like an eternity.

All but one of our suppliers and partners helped us. Some helped more than others, but they all helped. They all did what they could, except for that one. We suspect the one recalcitrant supplier may have caused the problem – perhaps that is why they were reluctant to respond to us and to help us, or maybe we are wrong. Maybe that has nothing to do with it. Maybe they were too busy, or too short of resources. Maybe they didn’t know how to help us. Maybe they didn’t care. Their perceived lack of urgency makes us wonder. We fixed the problem without their help, and now we’re wondering if they even want our business.

Here is the lesson in all of this:  When problems occur, respond quickly, assign appropriate resources, do not point fingers, and communicate thoroughly. Show your customer, by your words and actions, that you care – own the problem.

Customer Confidence, Customer Relationships, Customer Trust, Service Improvements ,

“Quality has always been about the fine points…”

“Quality has always been about the fine points…”  – Don Cornelius

Quality is about the details, the little things that make a difference. And like value, quality is always in the eye of the customer.

Have you ever closely examined a fine pair of shoes to see the detail of the work, the leather, the stitching, the soles, the way they fit, the way they make you feel when you wear them? Quality looks and feels different – it looks better, it feels better, it is better.

The same can be said about food, furniture, wine, practically anything we buy. High quality items are better. We know this because we have learned to tell the difference, to understand what sets one thing apart from another. We have learned to look at the fine points.

Just like you, your customers know quality when they see it, and they are often willing to pay more for it. Customers know when someone has gone the extra mile and put in the extra effort to deliver quality. Discerning customers are constantly raising the quality bar. Yesterday’s expectations for quality and dependability became today’s requirements.

Yet quality prized by one customer may mean very little to another. One customer may be very willing to pay extra for the fine points, they may place great value on higher quality. Another customer, however, may be very happy with an item of lesser quality purchased at a lesser price. The key is knowing how much value your customer places on quality and how much they are willing to pay for the level of quality they require. Consider a double-sided mattress:  Some customers will pay more for a double-sided mattress, arguing two sides provide high quality through prolonged use and comfort. Other customers have no intention of ever flipping their mattress and feel two sides are a needless extravagance.

Companies often waste precious resources or miss valuable opportunities providing greater or less quality than their customers desire. They may be providing the very best, only to discover their customers want and will only pay for less. They may price themselves out of existence by providing higher quality than their customers want. On the other hand, they may be missing an opportunity to provide higher quality products and services to customers who are willing to pay for the best and will go elsewhere to find it.

So what level of quality do your customers require? Are you putting yourself at risk providing higher or lower quality than your customers need and are willing to pay for? Most importantly, how do you know?

Quality has always been about the fine points. Understanding what level of quality your customers require is a very important fine point.

Customer Feedback, Voice of the Customer

Customers See the World Differently

Customers See the World Differently

Customers see the world differently from their product and service providers. They are interested in different things; they have different goals and objectives. These differences dramatically affect their overall customer experience.

Here is a case in point. I recently asked my financial planner what I thought was a simple question: Where is my portfolio at in relation to the market high that occurred in October 2007? In other words, where am I today relative to the high watermark? How much did I lose, and how long will it take me to make up the loss? I thought this was a simple question. His response surprised me. He said, “I don’t know, no one has ever asked me that question.” While it was standard to measure his customers’ current portfolios against the previous year, apparently comparing that information to the market top from several years ago was a much more difficult question.

I get that financial advisors are equipped to tell us where we are year-over-year, but as an investor I want to know where I am relative to the top, how much I have lost, and when I can reasonably expect to get back to even. That information is important to me because it looks at my overall financial picture, not just what I regard as a year-to-date snapshot. Knowing I am up X percent relative to last year is somewhat comforting but not particularly useful.

Now that my financial advisor has found a way to answer my question, I am sure he is using this knowledge to anticipate and answer similar questions from his other customers before being asked. He has taken another step in looking at the world the way at least some of his customers do.

Another example: The dreaded service engine light. I recently dealt with one of those maddening car problems that intermittently occurs and disappears without apparent cause, which caused the service engine light to go on. After several trips to the garage, during which the same part was replaced multiple times, the mechanic succeeded in causing additional problems, and eventually the car would not start at all. I gave up on the original mechanic, towed the car to another garage that diagnosed the problem, replaced another part, and returned the car to me.

Yet although the car now ran, the service engine light – in other words, the original problem – was still occurring. To make matters worse, the second garage charged me another diagnostic fee to address this original problem. In their eyes they did what they were asked to do: fix the engine that would not start. They were correct in claiming they fixed the problem I brought the car in with, but from my perspective they did not address the initial issue that caused the service engine light to go on in the first place. They were not seeing the world from my perspective. Several hundred dollars later, I still have a car with an intermittent service engine light problem.

Are you providing solutions that your customers would say only solved part of their problem and only answered part of their question? Are you meeting basic customer requirements (providing year-over-year data, getting the engine to start) or are you addressing true customer needs (Where am I relative to the downturn? Can you comprehensively fix my car and address all the problems?). Are you looking at the world through your customer’s eyes – or your own?

Customer Trust, Service Improvements